Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Act of Killing

Will someone get Errol Morris on the phone, please? 
I want to know what attracted a filmmaker of his caliber and reputation (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) into executive producing Genocide: The Musical, also known as The Act of Killing, starring Anwar Congo and his kooky death squad buddies.
NO! I have not yet seen this film. Has anybody? I won’t be going to the Toronto International Film Festival to see the premiere, but I still want to know what motivated Mr. Morris to executive produce this bizarre film.  
I would like to know what the pitch session was like. What did director Joshua Oppenheimer say to Mr. Morris?
Joshua: So Errol, we’ve got this great premise where we take brutish, unrepentant, sociopathic mass murderers and ask them to act out their infamous kills, Hollywood style.  That’s right, Errol. These shameless but whacky guys are eager to write the scripts based on actual murders they committed in Indonesia in the 60s. They’ll need proper costuming, makeup, fancy sets, of course.  That’s where you come in.   

Errol: Tell me more…

Joshua:   We film them reenacting their actual murders, but with TOTAL artistic license. Film noir. Spaghetti western.  You name it. I’m telling you that no dramatic genre is sacred.  I mean the whole thing is going wind up being one big reality show – I mean documentary.

Errol: Will there be musical numbers, Joshua?

Joshua: There could be. Why not?

So my question to you, Mr. Morris is this: what part of that premise sounded like a good documentary idea to you?  I’m curious. 

Let’s look at the backstory of The Act of Killing. In Indonesia in 1965, Anwar Congo was a small time thug and big time Hollywood film enthusiast who ingratiated himself with army death squad leaders by selling them black market movie tickets.  

Tired of the onerous task of doing their own killing, these army leaders recruited Anwar and his friends to carry out the murders of thousands of intellectuals, communists and ethnic Chinese and Indonesian citizens at odds with the military. In this nasty piece of Indonesian history millions were killed.  

How did all this turn out?  Death Squad veteran, Anwar Congo, has put day-day murdering behind him and has long since become part of the right-wing establishment in Indonesia, and now, thanks to director Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directors Christine Cynn and Anonymous, he is a movie star too.  Oops. Credit goes to that way-out Errol Morris too. Oh and Werner Hertzog - long story.  And yes, there really is a co-director credit for Anonymous. What does that tell you?

According to press materials found on IMDB, “Anwar Congo and his friends have been dancing their way through musical numbers, twisting arms in film noir gangster scenes, and galloping across prairies as yodeling cowboys.”

 And this from the film’s web site: “THE ACT OF KILLING is a nightmarish vision of a frighteningly banal culture of impunity in which killers can joke about crimes against humanity on television chat shows, and celebrate moral disaster with the ease and grace of a soft shoe dance number.”

I know. Where did I put my open mind? Seriously, I have long ago abandoned the notion that I have to like a film to appreciate its value.  I teach films that I like a lot, including Mr. Death by Mr. Morris, and films I dislike a lot, including Fog of War, also by Mr. Morris.  Send me a screener, Mr. Morris.  I’ll take a look at The Act of Killing. I will. 

Readers: You can forget about seeing the trailer until after the film premieres at the prestigious 2012 Toronto International Film Festival this September 6-16. If you go to Toronto and see the film, please write and tell me what you thought.  

To be fair, I have included the director’s statement in toto. 
By director Joshua Oppenheimer

"The Act of Killing reveals why violence we hope would be unimaginable is not only imagined, but also routinely performed. It is an effort to understand the moral vacuum that makes it possible for perpetrators of genocide to be celebrated on public television with cheers and smiles. It is a call to reexamine easy reassurances that we are the good guys fighting the bad guys, just because we say so.

Some viewers may desire resolution by the end of the film, a successful struggle for justice that results in changes in the balance of power, human rights tribunals, reparations, and official apologies. The film alone cannot create these changes, but this desire has been our inspiration as well, as we seek to shed light on the darkest chapters of both the local and global human story, and to express the real costs of blindness, expedience, and an inability to control greed and the hunger for power in an increasingly unified world society. This is not a story about Indonesia. This is a story about us all."
Wait – Wait - Wait.  What was that last part? This is a story about all of us? See now, Joshua, that’s where you get me mad. Will someone Errol Morris back on the phone? 

Note to self: Cancel the bucket trip to Indonesia. These guys are still alive and still in charge. 
 As always, thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wolves Unleashed and other tales

Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, opens April 26th and runs until May 6th.  This year Toronto will welcome filmmakers from all over the world, and screen over 200 films representing over 40 countries. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens the festival. Alison Klayman’s work about the Chinese activist artist won a special jury prize at Sundance.

The Charleston International Film Festival had a very successful 5th year. Congratulations to Summer and Brian Peacher, and Tina McCard, Ron Krauskopf and all the good folks who work so hard to bring South Carolina a terrific, hip and fun festival.

This year I saw some wonderful films, mostly docs and some shorts. Loved Tracis Hollifield', James Edward Tilden and Barret Burlage's short, My Sister Sam.  It was shot in South Carolina on Super 16mm using students from Trident Tech as crew. Way to go guys.

Shooting My Sister Sam in Summerville, SC
Expect to see more of the two young actors cast as leads, Sheldon Faure and Olivia Gainey.

I also loved the doc, Take Me To the Water: the Story of Pin Point
Pin Point is a waterfront community founded in 1890 by freed slaves. It is located on the banks of the Moon River, just southeast of Savannah, Georgia. This Gullah/Geechee community was home to the A.S. Varn & Son, an oyster and crab factory which employed most of the people of Pin Point until it closed in 1985.

The hit of the festival, the audience favorite was the Wolf Whisperer, Andrew Simpson, with his documentary, Wolves Unleashed. If you are reading on email, click on Wolves to go to the Vimeo trailer.

I met Andrew Simpson, a Scottish-born Canadian animal trainer for Hollywood films, and a full-time wolf whisper. I had a chance to chat with Andrew at the festival and this guy is the real deal: sweet, humble, modest and not only can he dance with wolves, he can get them to follow a script. 

Andrew told me that he was to take his wolves to Siberia to star in the French feature film, Loup, when he got the idea to make a "behind the scenes" documentary so that people could appreciate a side of wolves that is almost never depicted in films. Audiences are familiar with the snarling evil beast, but not the affectionate, trusting, spiritual animal that he knows so well. Andrew told me that wolves are very intelligent - even more intelligent than dogs, and that they can be very caring and are fully capable of forming bonds with people.
Andrew raises his wolves from pups and has them live in the house with him, travel in his car, and even sleep in his bed. This way, the wolves develop a special relationship with him and are able to take direction. They also seem to enjoy all the attention and respond to human warmth and kindness.

  Wolf Credo
•Respect The Elders
•Teach the Young
•Cooperate With The Pack
•Play When You Can
•Hunt When You Must
•Rest In-Between
•Share your affections
•Voice your feelings
•Leave your mark
Del Goetz

I received an excellent critique on my recent post and review of the film Knuckle. (two posts ago) I am reprinting it here in full with permission of the author, Dr. E. Moore Quinn, an anthropologist who has done extensive research in Ireland. I respect Dr. Quinn tremendously and appreciate her thoughtful evaluation.
  • "As for "Knuckle," I think I was so close to the subject that it made objectivity a bit difficult for me at first. Now I believe I can speak with less emotion. I had problems with the gratuitous nature of the violence, which is something you pointed out as well. More than that, however, I felt that the director did the viewers a great disservice in failing to contextualize the *entire culture* of the Travelers with more taste and understanding. For someone who has been filming for many years, he seems not to have gained a good perspective on Traveler life in toto. Rather, he has selected one aspect of Traveler culture and aggrandized it devoid of the nature of the overall culture. Likewise, he did very little to present the historical background of "The Travelers," and in not doing that, his film fed into the stereotypical ideas about them that colonialists perpetrated against the Irish as a whole: they're dirty, violent, ignorant, irascible, unable to solve problems with civility, etc.

    Finally, I think that the film fed into the "reality TV" genre very well, which returns me to a questioning of the filmmaker's motives. Since that genre is still attracting a great deal of viewer attention, it seems to me that "Knuckle" ends up being a filmic version of the same, and a viewing audience that is attracted to that kind of popular cultural norm is being wooed into the genre yet again, without being offered a fair understanding of what the truth left out of the film is all about."

    Thanks for reading. Please comment.

Monday, April 9, 2012


I don’t like race car driving. I especially dislike those single-seater Formula 1 races. All those turns, the endless roar of engines, and the completely insane speeds. Not to mention that you can’t see the competitor’s face.  That is a deal-breaker for me. I am willing to concede that to the initiated there must be something electrifying to this sport if only because over 520 million people watched the 2010 championship. Never-the-less, I don’t care for the sport. 

(SPOILER ALERT, but only if you are as clueless as I was about Formula 1 racing!) 

Despite my indifference to Formula 1 racing, at the conclusion of the documentary film Senna, I cried along with the tens of thousands of Brazilians who lined the roads of Sao Paulo as the hearse carrying Ayrton Senna’s body made its way to the church.  

Senna is a very good film. You don’t have to have any interest in racing to fall in love with Ayrton Senna. I think that a really well-structured film with a dynamic character can always rise above the most tedious subject matter and deliver a human experience that is poignant, authentic and somehow very reassuring. In such a film there is usually a moment in which we confront the absolute essence of a stranger and in that moment feel that we too have been exposed.  

Senna is the story of a little boy who loves go-kart racing and grows up to become one of the world’s best Formula 1 drivers.  He was also smart, humble, keenly competitive and a man of great faith. He was charismatic in the way that only Brazilians know how to be. He shared his infectious joy widely in a generous and authentic way, waving the Brazilian flag after each win at a time when most Brazilians had little reason for joy.  He won the hearts of all Brazilians, rich and poor, but it was underprivileged children he cared about most, giving millions to help them. The Instituto Ayrton Senna still aids Brazilian children and adolescents through public education programs.  Here is the official trailer.
If you are following on email, please use this link to view the official trailer.Senna
Ayrton Senna won the world championship three times before his death in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy. He remains a legend among his millions of fans and I now count myself as one.

The Charleston International Film Festival opens this week and features several exciting documentaries. I have one prediction. "Hooping" otherwise known as Hula Hooping will be the next big thing all over again.
Here is the trailer for The Hooping Life. If you are reading this on email, here is the link Hooping Life

Support your local film festivals. It's a great way to see some terrific indie films and meet the directors and producers and other film enthusiasts. And if they are anything like the CIFF, the After Parties are great fun. 

Thanks for following. Please comment. I want to know what you are thinking.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

One for St Patrick

You got a holiday; film enthusiasts have got a film for you. Christmas: It’s a Wonderful Life. Thanksgiving: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  Easter:  It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, Groundhog Day: Groundhog Day.
It’s a little more difficult to match a good documentary film to a holiday. Holidays are mostly celebratory, steep in magical traditions that are often fanciful and documentaries are devoted to unvarnished reality. Docs are not always feel good stuff; in fact, they’re more often incendiary fare, though sometimes just heartrending or emotionally draining (Finally watched How to Die in Oregon from beginning to end last night, and I cried from beginning until the end.) 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and have I got a Documentary for you. 

It’s a peculiar, compelling and dare I say, hard-hitting film, and while it may have you scratching your head, it won’t leave depressed. This is a real side of real Ireland. (An expert will weigh in on this statement later) I do promise that it’s not god-awful rainbows and leprechaun stuff.  No Paddywhackery. 

Knuckle is a documentary about bare knuckle fights that take place over a period of twelve years among three different feuding Irish Traveller clans, the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces and the Nevins.

The Irish Travellers, as their name implies, are a nomadic people. At one time, the Travellers used colorful horse-drawn caravans and they did some brusking and tinsmithing as they traveled about, but now get around in vans and cars as they look for work and the next best place to settle for awhile.  

The story is simple if the true motives are never quite clear. Bare knuckle fighting is a tradition of resolving disputes among Traveller clans. The best man of one clan takes on the best man of another clan, and when the fight is over, the dispute is done. Or that is the intention if not the reality. The fights have rules enforced by referees from neutral clans. No families members are permitted to attend out of fear that an all out clan brawl might break out. 

The filmmaker, Ian Palmer, though not an artist, has a nose for story and the persistence to follow it for over a decade. Palmer gained the trust of the Travellers, and was permitted unusual access to a way of life that many of us might never know existed. Though Palmer interviews all three clans, his story becomes that of brothers who feel they must defend the family’s honor and each other after a tragic event involving one brother and a member of the Joyce clan.
James Quinn, the bare knuckle champion and most sympathetic character, is also a reluctant pugilist who prefers socializing to training and fighting.  He does what he came to do and goes home. The first time that he appeared on screen, I thought, Randy Couture, the retired American MMA fighter. They share the same expansive shoulders, flattened nose, squared-off jaw and balding head.  But Quinn’s fights have none of the UFC glamour that Couture’s had. No arenas, no entrance music and light show, no professional commentary or ring girls. Quinn’s fights are brutal, back road affairs with untrained opponents, who take their thwacking stoically, yet the fights are also entrancing and in due course they come to move the heart as we understand how Quinn is trapped. He was set up years ago, most likely before he was born and he fights to end something that cannot be resolved by fighting. James Quinn is the tragic hero of Knuckle. It is worth your time to see it. 

Since Knuckle is at its core a fight film, I asked my son Malachy, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor and (I pray former) MMA fighter, to give me insight into what was going on on screen in fight terms.
Malachy "in the zone" before a fight in Atlantic City
 "Knuckle was an entertaining documentary; I had seen the footage before on YouTube but never knew the stories behind them.  This is what makes it fun to watch whether you are a fight fan or not.  I have spent considerable time in fight gyms across the United States so I guess I am somewhat qualified to critique the fighting in the movie.
Were Quinn and his opponent's fighting technique technical? Yes and no.  They are fighting for honor of their family name in the back roads of Ireland and not for million dollar paydays in Vegas.  If you've seen a street fight (just search YouTube) probably what you will see is wild right hands thrown from hip level with bad intentions also mostly missing.  

The Travellers, while not the most athletic (smokers, drinkers, and probably a lot of corned beef hash,) do show technique, largely Quinn is the more skilled fighter.  These bare knuckle fighters in comparison to elite boxers are sloppy plain and simple.  Coming from an MMA background I have seen some very successful sloppy strikers.  It can be called unorthodox to be more polite but the point is that sloppy doesn't make their strikes inefficient.  

While boxers typically have 16 ounces of padding in their gloves to cushion the blow, MMA fighters have just 4 ounces, making a landed heavy punch while sloppy very effective.  Just look at Chuck Liddell footage.  In bareknuckle fighting the effectiveness increases, but it also makes it much more dangerous to throw a heavy handed sloppy punch because the risk of breaking your hands is very high. 

 These Traveller fighters are tough, and as uncivilized and trashy as it looks to bludgeon someone else on a muddy road, there is something primal and exhilarating to fight with your bare hands for honor within the set of rules that these men abide by."

Knuckle is being adapted into a dramatic series by HBO. For those viewers who after seeing Knuckle, believe they have been permitted a rare view into an authentic and secretive culture and have instantly become experts on the Irish Travellers, I have invited friend, anthropologist and Ireland scholar, E. Moore Quinn to give us her best thoughts on the film.

If you are looking for something dramatic this St. Patrick's Day, by all means see the dramatic film In the Name of the Father too. It stars Daniel Day Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite - Brilliant 
Have fun, wear the green, but please people allow the dog some dignity. 

Folks in New Zealand enjoying St. Patrick's Day
Sydney, Australia

Thanks for reading. Please follow. Please comment and let me know what you think. Send me a photo of St. Patrick's Day celebration in your nation, city, town or home. Read about dyeing the Chicago River Green here!   

Finally, here is a shout out to Irish blogger Tom Dowling. He writes about theater, architecture, the environment and of courses the pictures. Tom Dowling's Blog

And check out one of my absolute favorite small film festivals has issued a call for entries for 2013.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Final Five

The Academy Award Nominees for Best Documentary Feature were announced and it is down to 5...
"If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" (Netflix)
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"
Hell and Back Again
Let's look at Hell and Back Again...Director Danfung Dennis is a war photojournalist, covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2006. Hell and Back Again, his first feature-length documentary, focuses on the war in Afghanistan and life back home with a wounded and very angry soldier. What makes Hell and Back Again so mesmerizing is that the footage is brutally real and immersive.

Danfung Dennis followed a Marine infantry unit based out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Dennis captures the Marines commander on film reminding the troops that, "we are experts in the application of violence." The Marines know that they will be in close-combat, but clumsily board the massive helicopter that will drop them deep into enemy territory without comment, much less complaint.

We meet Sergeant Nathan Harris, 27, who joined the Marines at 18 with the disturbing desire to kill. Through the spectacular camera work of Dennis, we follow the infantry soldier deep into battle where he is badly wounded by those he sought to destroy. Through brilliant flashbacks and crosscutting by editor Fiona Otway we learn that after three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and a marriage to aggrieved but tender-hearted Ashley, Nathan is beginning to see the complexities of war and the consequences of his choices. However much he wanted to be a Marine -  a grunt - Harris now unequivocally knows, war is a peculiar hell that follows you back home. Take a look.

(For those reading on email go to You Tube or click

One of the few quasi-zen moments in the film comes at a most unexpected time as Harris is lying wounded on the field willing himself to breathe.  He explains that he didn't know if he would live or die, but he looked upward to the sky and told himself, You're going home. Keep breathing. Breathe slow. BREATHE.

Whether it's due to physical pain, PTSD, a troubled upbringing or damaged self-identity, Harris seems to possess a troubling fondness for gun play and video game violence. He poses with guns for online media and  plays a disquieting game of roulette, pointing his weapon at his young wife. Another time, he teaches his reluctant wife to load and shoot, telling her that North Carolina is a castle state, she can even shoot through the door, just not in the back. Before they say their prayers together, he demonstrates his gun ritual. "I put one in the chamber like that. I put it on my right side with the pistol grip pointing out... and all I have to do is flip off the safety. Done."Washington Post critic Michael O'Sullivan suggests that Harris is "forever carrying around a piece of unexploded ordnance in his head."

Young people thinking of enlisting should watch this film. Anyone who loves a soldier should see this film. And parents should see the film to learn more about our young soldiers, their impossible missions and preposterous interactions with the people of Afghanistan.  THEY DON'T WANT US THERE. That's clear.

See the film if you are a documentary filmmaker. I promise that you will marvel at how Dennis was able to accomplish the absurdly problematic task of filming under fire. It gives new meaning to the term "run and gun." See below for a list of equipment used by Dennis.
Nathan, now 27, is recovering from his serious gunshot wound to the hip, as Ashley tries to quiet his rage and help him readjust to civilian life. BREATHE NATHAN. BREATHE.

Danfung Dennis used a DSLR Canon 5D Mark II with Canon lens 24-70mm f2.8 with ND filters and ND faders. This has a CMOS sensor with outstanding ISO sensitivity. Yes, manual focus. This guy is VERY GOOD! Academy Award good.
Audio - He used external Sennheiser ME66 Shotgun and Sennheiser G2 Wireless microphones, a camera mounted Juiced Link (DS214) preamp and recorded onto the 5D.
In looking for a great photo of his film package, I came across a Documentary Tech article (great blog) with lots more info on all this.

Support your local Film Festivals! Beaufort International Film Festival gets underway Feb 15-19th, 2012. Great folks and great fun.

Charleston International Film Festival is celebrating their 5th year and they will open on April 11, 2012 and run until April 15th. They have terrific theaters lined up and it should be a terrific time. Great after parties hosted by Brian and Summer in a great party town.

What is your favorite film festival? I'd like to hear from you, so please drop a comment. 

Thanks for reading. Welcome new followers. I'm so glad that you are here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Oscar's Little Secret

It takes “much money” to qualify for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature – "much money" after the film is made.

You might be an inspired director. You might have created an astounding and luminous work. You might leave adoring audiences weeping with joy and sorrow. Boo-yah! That is just not enough to get you short-listed for a Documentary Oscar, and if you don’t make the shortlist, you will not be thanking your mother, father and God while accepting the golden boy on the stage at the Kodak Theater on February 26, 2012.

Not to say that the 2011 shortlisted documentaries aren’t deserving. Not at all. It is just that making the shortlist incurs significant marketing and distribution costs over and above the cost of making the film. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has rules and adhering to those rules is expensive. For an emerging indie filmmaker who has just maxed out her credit cards, getting to the next step maybe impossible. See Rule 12!

To be eligible for an Oscar, a feature length documentary must complete a seven-day commercial run in both Los Angeles and Manhattan and must be exhibited using 16mm, 35mm or 70mm film. (If you are short-listed, you will need 35mm or 70mm – not 16mm. A digital video to 35mm transfer will cost you $20,000+.) Digital video, though much less expensive to produce is not allowed for the screenings. And the film screenings must be advertised in The New York Times, Time Out New York or The Village Voice; Los Angeles Times or LA Weekly. A column inch in the Times costs over $800. So these rules guarantee that some groundbreaking films by emerging filmmakers won’t be eligible and will never make it onto the shortlist.  

These regulations have caused critics and film aficionados to decry both the list and the Academy. Some very impressive films including Inside the New York Times have been left off the list this year. Big name directors Werner Herzog and Errol Morris films were left off the list with Into the Abyss and Tabloid respectively. In addition to these omissions, film bloggers have been firing up the Internet with their personal snub lists. The most popular titles I’ve listed in alphabetical order:  
Being Elmo

Beats, Rhymes and Life
 The Greatest Movie Ever Sold 

 How To Die In Oregon 

 The Interrupters


 Life in a Day


Christopher Campbell who SPOUTS opinions on pop culture and movies makes the excellent point: Where are the social issue films this year? Noting that what we do have are “films about dance, photography, horse whispering, a monkey, Jane Goodall, inner-city football -- it's not exactly global warming.”

 Some International Documentary Association colleagues have weighed in on the subject. Kirk Jackson, producer and director at Going Home Pictures writing about films that were omitted says, “I would like to have seen "To Be Heard" and "How To Die In Oregon" (assuming it was eligible) on that list, as they are some of the more resonating films I've seen this year.”

Shu Ling Yong, documentary filmmaker, adds, “The Interrupters should definitely have made it on that list too. Saw it at Sundance and found it incredibly gripping.”
Asif Kapadia, director of the highly acclaimed and similarly snubbed Senna, agrees with Shu Ling, calling the Academy’s snub of Steve James’s The Interrupters “madness.”  To which Roger Ebert – a critic who nearly always hit the mark - tweeted: Shocker! James’s seminal documentary Hoop Dreams was controversially slighted back in 1994 as well.  

From the shortlist, five nominees will be announced on January 24th.  A few can be rented now from Netflix. And I recommend that you do. Here are the lucky 15 that made the first cut:
“Battle for Brooklyn"
"Bill Cunningham New York" (Netflix)
"Buck" (Netflix)
"Hell and Back Again"
"If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" (Netflix)
"Jane's Journey"
"The Loving Story"
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"
"Project Nim"
"Semper Fi: Always Faithful"  
“Sing Your Song"
"Under Fire: Journalists in Combat"

Leigh Divine, producer/director, has the final word on the subject. “I was not surprised to see Semper Fi on there- extremely powerful, important story of a man's struggle to understand his young daughter's death and where that question took him. Incredible.”
Here is that astounding trailer.
Semper Fi

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